1991 Lotus Elan

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$119–$28,011
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By 

Los Angeles Times
Forgive us our name-dropping...In 1966, I was an adult gofer on the Indy 500 pit crew of the late Colin Chapman and the even later Jimmy Clark. Our team runabout was a Lotus Elan in British Racing Green and banana stripes.

It was a ridiculous car.

Six-footers needed body grease to get in and a can opener to get out. It was short, low and light; Barbie's British pen pal probably drove an Elan. This two-seater (actually, more of a 1.6-seater) did not need a car cover because a tea cozy worked just as well.

On the other hand, the Type 26 Lotus Elan was a sports car shot from a crossbow with an enormous talent for outhauling, out cornering, outwitting and generally humiliating Jaguar XKEs, the early Corvettes, all the Triumphs and the other back-road bullies.

This month, after a production lapse of 17 years, the Lotus Elan again is on sale in the United States.

And it's just as nutsy.

The engine is supplied by Isuzu, the instruments by Opel and the steering wheel by General Motors, but we are asked not to confuse this car with seminal Lotii, which were kit cars.

It has grown, by golly, into a 1.8-seater sports car. And, at $40,000, this fiberglass goober certainly is no cheap date.

Yet, as a sports car, its sang remains froid and the Elan is still rigged, geared and energized to beat up on anything twice its size and horsepower--with agility to spare. May heaven and an AAA tow truck help the MR2s or Geo Storms that might presume to get through corners and traffic any quicker.

But let's get to the bad stuff.

In many ways — in particular those concerning creature conveniences and skeletal comforts — the Lotus Elan would be an abysmal car at a third of the price.

It is wasp-waisted with a bobbed tail: Is this a Lotus or a well-fed Geo Metro we see before us? Or, by the stubble of Patrick Swayze, the ghost of a Pontiac Fiero that might have been?

Outside door handles are levers buried beneath the leading edge of the doors. They should be good for about 10 acrylic nails per commute week.

Those taller than 6 feet must drive with the seat fully to the rear and the seat back (ergo, the driver's back) not far from vertical. There isn't enough head, shoulder, elbow, hip, knee or leg room for larger persons in the cabin. Nor much wiggling room for Size 12 feet in the pedal well.

Arm rests are by the Marx Brothers. The right one is the padded top of the center console and almost at shoulder height. The left one is a lip in the door. Elbows frequently slip off this slight ledge to bury themselves in your groin.

There is zero storage space behind the seats because that's where the convertible top mechanism goes. Beneath a tiny trunk lid is, surprise, a tiny trunk. It is of irregular shape and dimensions awaiting that day when Samsonite makes a Silly Putty suitcase.

The bad gets worse. The only way Lotus could s upply its American customers with a driver's side air bag was to equip the Elan with a steering wheel from the Camaro/Firebird parts bin. It was a bastard fit. The upper quadrant of the wheel now cuts across the face of the speedometer.

The engine instruments are center-mounted and have non-glare glass. A thoughtful idea. But when sunlight is beaming at the right angle from behind the car, the gauges go blanker than Orphan Annie's eyeballs.

In terms of user friendliness, this car is antisocial.

Then why risk further upsetting the U.S. balance of payments by spending $40,000 on a limey roller skate with barely enough luggage space for groceries for a candlelight supper? Especially when the same price will can buy a Corvette or a Nissan 300ZX Turbo with much more couth and plenty of room for grown-ups? Particularly when $40,000 should buy a vehicle free of hybridism and mechanical ad-libs?

Well, for one thing, the implied elan of owning an E lan wil l guarantee a steady supply of suitably impressed guests for the aforementioned candlelight suppers.

Then there's the exclusivity of being seen in one of only 1,000 Elans that will be shipped to America this year.

Beyond those numbers — and their promise of some serious appreciation in the years ahead — there's the obvious attraction of owning a pedigree vehicle renowned as a race car first and a street car only as an afterthought directed at a privileged few.

Above all else, buying a Lotus is anyone's ticket to the best and blessed facet of sports-car motoring — the provision of pure fun and unequalled exhilaration in a car that in its class, and then some, is the world's finest handler.

Granted, this is a single dimension and a narrow one at that. The Elan offers absolutely no potential as a hauler of goods, people, Rottweilers or pool-cleaning equipment.

Alongside other forms of personal transportation, it is impractical, illogical, extravagant, excessive, inarguably hedonistic and far beyond the sense of sharing that mother taught us.

So, God bless 'em, are sports-car owners; especially those wind-burned, self-challenging purists with money and soul to invest in a car built by individuals of identical passions.

This car is for them, the elite (the appropriate name for an earlier Lotus) who know the subtleties creating the performance mettle of the Lotus Elan.

Its Isuzu engine — a turbocharged four-cylinder developing 162 horsepower from its 1.6 liters — isn't that far removed from the same power plant used in the Geo Storm and Isuzu Impulse RS. But thanks to engine-management tweaks that Lotus coyly calls "enhancements," the power station sounds quieter and feels punchier.

The suspension is fully independent with springs, control arms and anti-roll bars. But they are norms for cars that introduce oomph to our existence. And it is a front-driver, a configuration guaranteed to flare the nostrils of those who see sports motoring as an orthodox religion.

But examine the Elan's chassis.

Unlike other automotive frames, it has a steel spine, splayed at both ends to receive suspensions and engine. It is a setup providing enormous torsional strength; also a rigid platform flattening the car through corners as if nailed to asphalt. Such engineering also erases body tremors common to modern convertibles.

The Elan's body panels and floor pan are made from fiberglass and composite plastics. This keeps weight down to 2,451 pounds, which enhances the power-to-weight ratio for quicker movement over pavement. And that movement translates to a top speed of 137 m.p.h. with a 0-60 m.p.h. acceleration time of 6.7 seconds.

The numbers are excellent, but again, not incredible by today's standards of high-performance motoring. In truth, Toyota's MR2 Turbo posts quicker acceleration times and is 5 m.p.h. faster at the t op end. The 300ZX Turbo is even better.

But thanks to superlative chassis engineering, when the MR2 and the 300ZX start to scuff and slow in tight right-handers, the Elan will be whipping through and getting back up to speed.

Riding on 16-inch, cast-alloy wheels and low-lying Goodyear tires developed especially for the Elan, the car sticks well, with none of the under-steer inherent to front-drivers. Torque steer skitters, however, are quite noticeable and an irritation best anticipated early.

The ride of our mustard-yellow test car was stiff and tuned to feel a bread crumb on a billiard table. But a harder ride is just a necessary adjunct to the car's perfect balancing act; a combination of solid braking, precise steering and unflexing chassis.

Whether any of this is worth $40,000 is best left to buyers, their priorities and a good family counselor.

Consider this: The Elan costs $17,000 more than the Toyota MR2, a hefty p remium to pay for better handling and greater exclusivity, but a lesser finish.

But fair warning: With the top down, with eucalyptus and citrus the musk of a warm morning, with a serpentine backroad, there is noother car like the Elan. Its pace is spectacular, its gearbox crisp and agile, and its maneuvering unperturbable. You just know the car will do nothing to harm you.

Sit back inside the Elan at speed. Go quickly, but relax. Pinch senses, but remain calm. Feel tension depart and verve flow by mental repositioning.

It's called the Lotus position.

1991 Lotus Elan

The Good Among world's best-handling cars. Family heritage and exclusivity. Power-to-weight ratio biased to power. Flex-free convertible.

The Bad The price. Ergonomic time-bomb. One-dimensional automobile. Buried door handles.

The Ugly The borrowed bits.

1991 Lotus Elan

Cost Base $39,040 As tested $39,990 (Includes leather seats, air conditioning, aluminum alloy wheels, power door locks and driver's side air bag.)

Engine Turbocharged, 16-valve, four-cylinder, 1.6-liter engine developing 162 horsepower.

Type Front-drive, two-seater sports car.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 6.7 seconds. Top speed, manufacturer's measurement, 137 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city-highway, 24 and 31 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,451 pounds.

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